Ag, no, Sugar Man

Andrew Donaldson writes on the preposterous claims being made in Western obituaries of Sixto Rodriguez


THE death last month of Sixto Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter ignored in his native United States but whose remarkable debut album, Cold Fact (1970), earned him unlikely cult hero status in South Africa, has once more brought into focus the absurdities of what may be termed “Sugar Mania”.

The tributes and commemorations from local fans have been heartfelt. Many took to social media to post photographs taken at concerts on Rodriguez’s various South African tours along with expressions of appreciation for his music and its significance to them at often difficult times in their lives, particularly as conscripts in the SADF.

The obituaries in the international press have however been preposterous. Over the past six weeks accounts have appeared in newspapers and magazines of bootleg copies of Cold Fact circulating in South Africa in the 1970s like some form of samizdat and with electrifying results. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

According to The Times of London, the album’s “stream-of-consciousness protest songs touched a nerve among white liberal youth during the apartheid era”. The New York Times reported that Rodriguez was apparently unaware of his popularity “among white South Africans uncomfortable with apartheid and the country’s rigidly conservative culture”.

The music press has been no different. The November edition of Uncut magazine, for example, claimed that the singer’s “erudite folk-groove protest songs were adopted as anthems in unlikely parts of the world, not least by anti-Apartheid campaigners and dissenting military conscripts in South Africa”. 

In its latest issue, Mojo, an otherwise authoritative publication, opened its obituary thus:

“Few protest singers get to see their songs make an actual, impactful, physical social difference. In the case of Rodriguez, however, it’s arguable that without his 1970 Cold Fact album, apartheid in South Africa might have lasted a generation longer than it did.”

This is weapons-grade imbecility. But it gets worse. The magazine stated that while his career had “flamed out” in the US by 1972, “something unparalleled was unfolding” on the other side of the world:

“No one really knows who or how, but someone came back to South Africa carrying Cold Fact. Tapes were passed around like an underground manifesto, and eventually it sold over half a million copies. Cold Fact’s impact on a generation of white kids in a country that resisted introducing TV until 1976 because it was ‘communist’ cannot be overstated. Children were brought up with no knowledge of dissent, yet in songs about finding hope and rising up against the decay of inner-city Detroit, such as Hate Street DialogueThe Establishment Blues and Rich Folks Hoax, young South Africans for the first time heard a voice saying that if you don’t like what you saw, you should and actually could do something about it.”

The cultural boycott, I believe, is largely responsible for this tosh. One consequence of the ostracism and wilful isolation of South African artistic expression is the intellectual desolation and narrow parochialism that persists even now, decades after the dawn of the democratic era. But let’s not be too harsh on the foreign media; they’d know better once they asked a few more questions.

This is not to suggest, however, that we haven’t produced own Rodriguez woo woo. Those pre-internet rumours of the early 1970s were certainly wild and woolly, including the foundational myth that this music was extremely dangerous and that, like Pandora’s Box, once unleashed upon naive and innocent ears, weird shit would happen. 

I first heard Cold Fact when I was 12 or 13. The schoolmate who played me the album claimed it had been outlawed by the government and we risked a prison sentence merely by listening to it. This of course was arrant nonsense; though banned from airplay by the SABC (the fate of much foreign pop music), the album was freely available in local record stores. 

My tastes at the time were not all that sophisticated; I was into the Rolling Stones, having received the Hot Rocks compilation as a birthday gift. The Stones, to my adolescent mind, were far more thrilling and subversive than anything my peers were into, be it Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Alice Cooper — or indeed Rodriguez. 

But I liked Cold Fact. It’s a good record, not untypical of the psychedelia-tinged folk-rock of its era with its unsparing observations of corruption and social decay. 

I have also come to believe that the Calvinists who sought to protect us from such things had no reason to fear the album; if anything, Cold Fact could have been a powerful weapon in their arsenal, for here were all the horrors of societal collapse brought about by Western permissiveness: abortion, adultery, emotional estrangement, soaring divorce rates, rampant crime, mental breakdowns, squalid ghettos, runaway unemployment, abject poverty, addiction and disease. (There’s a lot packed in its 32 minutes but, for the record, no direct references to race or racial intolerance.)

Two songs stood out for us as teenagers: the opening Sugar Man, a junkie’s plaintive cry to his dealer, and I Wonder, with its silly rumination about someone’s desperate, unhappy sex life. For many, these are the album’s highlights. Anna Hartford, a greatly undervalued Cape Town writer, claims there is “something telling” about this. She hit the nail on the head in her February 2013 piece in The Paris Review Daily, when the hype surrounding Malik Bendjelloul’s Oscar-winning Rodriguez documentarySearching for Sugar Man, was at fever pitch:

“They’re great songs, but they’re also of the worst of them … And for a nation that’s now calling this album its theme song to political freedom, it’s worth remembering that these are the two tracks that have the least to do with freedom. Forgive me, but with hindsight these look like the songs chosen by a populace made puerile by censorship and patriarchy. I Wonder: the sex one. Sugar Man: the drug one.”

Other commentators have echoed the sentiment. “It’s what I've always said,” the music critic Richard Haslop observed in an email to me. “Singlehandedly dismantled apartheid with a song about sex and a song about drugs.” 

None of this will make any difference to those who revere Rodriguez. They’re committed fans, they revere the guru, and that’s that. 

But the fabulation and misremembering continues to grate. It’s frustrating that Cold Fact and, to a lesser extent its successor, Coming From Reality (1971), are still considered to have played a role in a wider political movement. For Hartford, this was an integral theme in Bendjelloul’s movie: “It’s a strange kind of algebra: Rodriguez was anti-establishment, I was into Rodriguez, therefore I was anti-establishment. It turns out everyone was a liberation hero. Which, phew, is a real load off the old conscience…”

The international press, blown away by Searching for Sugar Man, ran wholesale with this theme. The Guardian, for example, claimed Cold Fact was a hit among “the white liberal classes, and [Rodriguez’s] powerful, plangent voice became a soundtrack for the whites’ anti-apartheid movement”. The New Statesman said the singer was “revered by tens of thousands of liberal, anti-apartheid Afrikaners, who found in his lyrics the inspiration to think freely”. “You never know where social resistance will find its prophets and poets,” the Los Angeles Times said. “For young liberal Afrikaners opposing apartheid in the ‘70s, it was [Rodriguez].” The syndicated film critic Roger Ebert said his songs “became anthems of the anti-apartheid movement”.

At the time, I reported in the Sunday Times that such claims were curious distortions, for the film makes no such claims — although it does suggest that Cold Fact’s lyrics would have been attractive to anyone opposed to apartheid, and some fans interviewed by Bendjelloul do in fact credit the album for raising their consciousness.

But Bendjelloul and others ignored the uncomfortable truth that a great many verkramptes were also Rodriguez fans. As I put it back then, “even racists like a good tune”. This was brought home to me in January 1978 when, along with other raw SADF conscripts, I was made to slow dance with my newly-issued rifle and ordered to kiss its muzzle as if I was “graunching your tjerrie” while a troopie banged out Rodriguez songs on his acoustic guitar.

Those were the last Rodriguez songs I heard for a long while, simply because there was so much better stuff to listen to. But, two decades later, the singer was back on my radar following his late career “rediscovery” in 1997 and his South Africa tour the following year. These concerts were filmed by Tonia Selley for a documentary screened by the SABC in 2001. Much of Selley’s footage would later appear in Searching for Sugar Man

Another troubling myth would emerge with the Bendjelloul documentary, namely that the Rodriguez “rags-to-rags-to-riches” tale was a uniquely South African narrative, a local “success story”. This was not to suggest, as Rian Malan has pointed out, that Cold Fact had any role in the anti-apartheid struggle. Far from it.

But Malan would admit in the Mail & Guardian to a “curious view” that the film’s triumph “is also our own”: “After all, we were there at the very beginning, back in 1971, when a local record label issued Cold Fact, Rodriguez’s debut album. We got it; Americans did not. Among us, Cold Fact became an instant cult hit. In the United States, it sank like a stone.”

This he attributes to bigotry: “Rodriguez was writing literate protest songs for college-educated white Americans whose fashionably leftish politics disguised a subtle and possibly unconscious form of racism. They expected Mexicans to be gardeners, maids or mariachi players. Poets were required to be tormented and pale, in the manner of Byron. They just did not know what to make of a Mexican Bob Dylan.” 

Those fashionably leftish types knew what to make of Joan Baez, a female Mexican Bob Dylan, nogal. But no matter. The simple truth is that Americans had no idea there was, in fact, such an artist as a “Mexican Bob Dylan”. 

Rodriguez may have played a large part in his own anonymity. According to the Daily Telegraph, the singer sabotaged his early career: “Even the most devout fans were alienated by his habit of performing with his back to them. At a key music industry showcase he invited on stage a member of the Brown Berets, the Hispanic equivalent of the Black Panthers, to sound off about injustice. It was not what record company executives wanted to hear.”

If his career nose-dived at that point, it didn’t remain in the doldrums for long. A compilation album, At His Best, was released in Australia in 1977. It was a best-seller and prompted a 1979 tour. These concerts were recorded for a 1981 release, Alive. That year, he returned to Australia for an arena tour with Midnight Oil. All of this was ignored by Bendjelloul, possibly because it would have complicated the narrative of his film.

The work dried up after that last Australian tour and it wasn’t until his “rediscovery” by Capetonian fans Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom that Rodriguez started performing again. Touring was now a regular occurrence. I saw him in London, in October 2005, at the Kentish Town Forum. There were two concerts that weekend, and I attended both as a guest of one of the supporting acts. 

There was a reception after the last show and as I made my way to a bar on the venue’s top floor, I found myself sharing the venue’s elevator with Rodriguez. It wasn’t the best place to make small talk. Still, I tried, and clumsily suggested that his life had taken some bewildering turns.

“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s been a strange trip … Janis … Jimi … Jim … all gone now…” 

Then he was whisked away by his daughter, who had her hands full in the role as her father’s minder.

Leaving the party hours later with a group of friends, we drifted off to an all-night boozer in Camden. We had just settled down to a drink when Rodriguez walked in, angry daughter in tow. He made quite an entrance, turning heads because of his outfit. He was dressed in black leather from head to toe: a full-length leather frock coat, leather trousers, leather waistcoat and leather fedora. As he found an empty table and sat down, a drunk called out, “Hey, pardner! Where’s your horse?”

Rodriguez ignored him. The rest of the bar then turned back to their drinks and ignored Rodriguez. They had no idea who he was, and didn’t care one way or the other. The singer sat in silence, smiling at nothing in particular from behind jet black sunglasses. He seemed happy to be in this low-lit dive, and I wondered whether it was the alcohol or whether he was reminded of the deadbeat venues and clubs he’d performed in decades before the South Africans called. 

Then his daughter, tired and grumpy, called for a taxi. It was time to get back to reality.